Philip Bullock, 68,  is the Freemasons’ Provincial Grand Master for Wiltshire. He was recently in Swindon to help promote the town’s nine lodges and Freemasonry as a whole in the organisation’s 300th anniversary year. Philip, a retired pharmaceutical company worker, lives in Easterton, near Devizes. He is married and has a daughter and two grandchildren

“FREEMASONRY,” said Philip Bullock, “is a body of people who – I think it’s reasonable to say – share the same view, which is that we’re not bystanders of life.

“We want to be active members of life. What I mean by that is that we care about one another and we care about helping others, not because we want acclamation for it, but because we are compassionate people.

“We give to charity with compassion rather than, necessarily, looking for a spotlight.”

Local charities supported by Swindon lodges include Prospect Hospice, Brighter Futures, the air ambulance, Open Door, mentoring group SMASH and Swindon Women’s Aid.

A project called Teddies For Loving care has given 50,000 teddy bears to young hospital patients in Swindon and Salisbury over the last decade.

The organisation is sometimes thought of by non-Freemasons as secretive, but Philip joined in circumstances which were anything but mysterious.

It is an all-male organisation – women have the all-female Order Of Women Freemasons and the Honourable Fraternity Of Ancient Freemasons – but Philip’s introduction came courtesy of two women.

“I was initiated in February of 1997. At the church I belong to, the church warden was going to go to a ladies’ night. She then said to my wife: ‘What do you think of this long dress, Sally?’ Sally said: ‘It looks superb – where are you going, Sue?’”

The ladies night the church warden was attending was held by a local lodge, and her husband was a Freemason.

Sally told her that Philip had always been interested in Freemasonry.

Philip said: “About a week later I got a phone call from her husband, saying: ‘I hear you’re interested in Freemasonry. Do you fancy a pint?’

“Later I went for an interview. They asked me all sorts of questions – for example, why was I interested in Freemasonry. I said I wanted to do something for the community and I also wanted to expand my range of friends.

“That was it.”

Philip is originally from Nottingham. His father was a sales manager for a grinding wheel manufacturer who later became a shopkeeper.

As Provincial Grand Master For Wiltshire, Philip has overall responsibility for 44 lodges. There are about 400 Freemasons in Swindon, about 2,100 in Wiltshire and about 200,000 nationwide.

Many distinguished Swindon people have been members; names on the honours boards at the hall in Old Town include Gooch, Calley, Pleydell, Leighfield, Toomer, Hill, Crowdy and Bevir. Bert Fluck, the father of Diana Dors, was a Freemason.

The tercentenary commemorates something that happened on June 24, 1717.

“Four lodges in London decided that they were disorganised, and that it would be a good idea to form an administrative organisation that could actually do the day-to-day running rather than doing it in isolation,” said Philip

“So these four lodges met at a pub called the Goose And Gridiron Ale House, which is in St Paul’s. They formed the first Grand Lodge.”

Before that, individual lodges worked in isolation. Their origins lay centuries earlier, almost certainly as guilds of stonemasons who helped to build our great churches and cathedrals.

The rituals and forms of words to which only masons were privy may have been a form of professional guarantee in the days before formal exam-based qualifications.

Philip said: “If you were building Salisbury Cathedral, you needed to make sure that the operative who was building your spire knew what he was doing.

“These skilled operatives were billeted in lodges. I suppose they were from all over Europe, and they would need accommodation.”

Philip readily acknowledges that the organisation acquired a reputation for excessive secrecy in the years following the Second World War, but says this was a holdover from the war years themselves, when Nazi invasion would have seen Freemasons persecuted.

“Instead of being transparent, like we were prior to the war, we decided not to be,” he said.

“Then the conspiracists started to decide what they should think about Freemasonry.

“We should have perhaps gently said these were ridiculous myths, but we didn’t.”

Among the myths is the suggestion that Freemasons join in order to secure privileges and unfair advantages but, according to Philip, the recruitment process – applications are welcome – actively weeds out such people.

Membership is open to men of any background who believe in a supreme being, and talk of religion or politics is banned.

“For me, one of the predominant things about it is the superb range of friends that I’ve met, really genuine people who are a delight to be with,” Philip said.

“You meet such a huge range of people, from people who have fairly normal jobs right up to captains of industry, but the nice thing is that you can communicate with them with ease.

“I think Masonic life in Swindon is one of vitality and vigour, one that appeals to a cross section of Swindon, one that actually helps Swindon charities on a consistent basis.

“It’s vibrant, it’s growing, and it’s providing much-needed support and a contribution to the community.

“We are always looking for men of good character who want to join an organisation which has high values and places great emphasis on personal integrity, a desire to help and personal development.

“I think most Freemasons would say they are better people for being exposed to Freemasonry.

“It also develops your self-confidence, not in a flamboyant way but a general inner self-confidence.

“Freemasonry is as relevant – in fact, more relevant now than ever it has been in its 300 years to men of good character who value friendship and personal development, and not to be a spectator of life but a participant in it.”